Southern Baptist seminary admitted registered sex offender during high-profile leader's tenure
Paige Patterson led Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at the time but denies involvement in the seminarian's admission.
- Historic report on Southern Baptist Convention leaders' handling of abuse crisis leads to new revelations
- Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary admitted a sex offender who self-disclosed his status
- Well-known SBC leader Paige Patterson, former Southwestern president, denies involvement in the decision
During the tenure of a high-profile Southern Baptist leader, administrators at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas admitted a registered sex offender who had self-disclosed his status to the institution.
Paige Patterson, one of the most influential Southern Baptists and Southwestern's president at the time, praised the student, saying "God's hand is really on you and that you have a brilliant future for the Kingdom," according to an email he sent to the student and obtained by The Tennessean from a former seminary employee.
The revelation follows Southern Baptist Convention officials' recent decision to publish a list maintained in secret containing the names of ministers accused of sexual misconduct.
The list was among the findings from a historic report from Guidepost Solutions about SBC leaders' handling of a sexual abuse crisis over the past two decades within the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Since its release, the report has shocked the Nashville-based SBC and its affiliated agencies, including its seminaries.
Guidepost report:'Ignored, disbelieved': Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse report details cover up, decades of inaction
For instance, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina announced last week it would remove the names of Patterson and Johnny Hunt from seminary facilities and academic programs. Guidepost's report included an allegation of sexual assault against Hunt, a former SBC president who has denied the accusations.
Southwestern, located in Fort Worth, Texas, issued a news release Wednesday compiling the names in the recently published list who have had past relationships with the seminary. But only one of those names, Erbey Valdez, enrolled at Southwestern after registering as a sex offender.
The documents The Tennessean obtained include a series of emails showing how seminary administrators debated whether to admit Valdez, which they ultimately did.
"Southern Baptists have made it clear that they will not tolerate their seminaries training or harboring a known sex offender," current Southwestern President Adam Greenway said in a statement to The Tennessean. "We are grieved and angered to learn that Southwestern Seminary did exactly that under a previous administration."
Patterson, Southwestern's president from 2004 to 2018, denied involvement in the decision to admit Valdez.
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Patterson "has no recollection of Mr. Valdez or his admission to Southwestern," J. Shelby Sharpe, Patterson's attorney, said in a statement.
"Seldom did Dr. Patterson participate in the admission process," Sharpe said. "The few he did participate in did not include Mr. Valdez and were individuals who had no questionable background."
List of ministers accused of misconduct:Southern Baptist Convention leaders publish long-secret list of accused ministers
Before leading Southwestern, Patterson was the architect of the SBC-altering Conservative Resurgence, an SBC president and president at Southeastern.
Since admitting Valdez, Southwestern has changed its admissions policies. In 2015, the seminary started running background checks on every applicant.
In 2019, Southwestern adopted a policy denying admission to to any applicant who is a known sex offender. "In fact, they need not even apply. We are committed to doing all that we can to ensure the safety of the entire seminary community," Greenway said. "Today, Southwestern Seminary is a fundamentally different institution."
'Ordinarily, I would just deny the applicant'
Valdez registered as a sex offender in Texas in July 2010 after he pleaded guilty to two second-degree felony charges: improper relationship between an educator and student and sexual performance by a child.
A 17-year-old female high school student told law enforcement that Valdez, then a middle school principal, had sex with the high school student, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times.
Four months later, administrators at Southwestern were considering Valdez's application to enroll as a master's of divinity student.
"Ordinarily, I would just deny the applicant below," Kyle Walker, then director of admissions at Southwestern, said in an email, according to the documents The Tennessean obtained.
Walker had received a message from his assistant mentioning Valdez's application and sought guidance on next steps from Thomas White, then vice president for student services and communications.
In his application, Valdez had self-disclosed his registered sex offender status and also listed a Southwestern dean as a recommendation.
Walker asked White if they should check with that dean, Rudy Gonzalez, about Valdez.
"Yes, call Gonzales [sic] and make sure he knows about the situation," White replied to Walker in an October 2010 exchange.
White, currently president of Baptist-affiliated Cedarville University in Ohio, came under fire and was temporarily on leave in 2020 after Cedarville hired a professor with an abusive past that White knew about and withheld information on from the university.
White, Walker and Valdez declined to comment.
Patterson was fired from the seminary and stripped of his benefits after a series of revelations, including that he discouraged a female seminarian from reporting a rape allegation in 2003 while president at Southeastern. Media outlets also reported that in 2015, Patterson sent an email to a Southwestern official expressing his desire to meet one-on-one with a female seminarian who reported an assault to "break her down."
The Guidepost report also highlights Patterson and his past controversies.
Patterson fired:Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson removed as Texas seminary president after comments on women, abuse
Pushback against Patterson:Thousands of women are pushing back against a top Southern Baptist leader. Here's why.
Despite the media reports and acknowledgement by Southwestern's trustees, Patterson continues to deny those events.
"Dr. Patterson has never discouraged the report sexual wrong conduct and when he learned of such he had it reported," Sharpe said in his statement.
A day after the initial exchange between Walker and White about Valdez's application, the decision was made to admit Valdez.
"Erbey has been extremely humble in showing repentance," Walker emailed White on Oct. 21, 2010, referencing a recent conversation with Gonzalez. "Erbey strongly senses the Lord has forgiven him and he and his wife are still together and have gotten past the incident."
Gonzalez reiterated that past sentiment in an interview on Friday.
"I would have no reservations today, as I didn’t back in the day, to recommend him (Valdez). Because I believe that God has done a genuine work in his life and in his heart," Gonzalez said.
"The man has truly repented of his sins and I believe he’s a child of God," Gonzalez said. "He’s a minister of the gospel and he loves people. And I believe he has paid his debt to society, totally."
Many abuse survivors and Southern Baptist pastors disagree with this argument of repentance, however.
"We know that Christians have a tendency to grant this loose grace for someone who wants to be in ministry under the thinking of them receiving a 'calling,'" abuse survivor Tiffany Thigpen said in a statement.
"These leaders have continued to help and employ admitted predators while telling us their really isn’t a problem here – actively placed them before us as Shepherds and called us evil," Thigpen said. "Epitome of pride and arrogance."
However, White seemed to agree with Gonzalez and Walker's recommendation in 2010, when he replied to Walker's email saying that Southwestern can go ahead and admit Valdez on the condition that Gonzalez checks on Valdez "periodically to make sure he is doing okay.”
Valdez ultimately enrolled at Southwestern a few years after he was admitted to the seminary and graduated in 2017, according to Valdez's LinkedIn profile.
Before Valdez graduated, Patterson would extend a similar generosity to Valdez that he received upon his admission.
"I am so happy to make your acquaintance," Patterson said to Valdez in a February 2017 email. The president was inviting Valdez to a meeting to discuss Valdez's choices for a doctorate program.
"I want to visit with you, please," Patterson told Valdez in his email, which ended with, "I will be praying heaven’s blessings upon you, my brother.”
After Southwestern, Valdez started New Spirit Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he still pastors.
Guidepost said in its report that nine people on the secretly maintained list remained in ministry or were connected to ministry.
New Spirit is not affiliated with the SBC, and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention withdrew New Spirit's fellowship in 2019 when it learned Valdez is a registered sex offender.
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @liamsadams.